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League stalwarts struggle; MLS Power Rankings

Photo: John Rieger/USA Today Sports

Chris Pontius and D.C. United lost 1-0 at Sporting Kansas City on Friday on an 89th-minute goal.

Two of the league's flagship franchises and playoff contenders from a year ago find more struggles, and MLS is staring at another fruitless CONCACAF Champions League campaign following another week of action:

1. Atlantic Cup misery. Neither D.C. United nor the New York Red Bulls are likely to be thrilled leading into their next rivalry clash.

This Saturday's Atlantic Cup match at RFK Stadium may ceremonially be renamed the Desperation Cup considering their early-season problems. With a combined 2-6-3 record, the traditional rivals are longing for the playoff form from a season ago while other teams have established a more stable footing during 2013.

There are reasonable explanations, but that they amount to no more than excuses for teams that should be better than their records show. D.C., for example, was always going to be facing a tall order going into Sporting Park without the injured Dwayne De Rosario and Nick DeLeon. Its schedule to start the season has been anything but a walk in the park -- games at Houston, New York and Sporting Kansas City among the first five games.

The fact remains, though, that D.C. has only scored twice. Reasonable opportunities have been hard to come by, and the depth options are just not getting the job done like they were a season ago. De Rosario has battled suspension and injury, Chris Pontius has yet to score and has mustered just two shots on goal. D.C. is needs Pontius to find his New York mojo (he scored five goals against the Red Bulls last season) to spark a resurgence. With five of the next seven games at home, it is quickly becoming a do-or-die stretch for a team that did not figure to struggle in so many ways after a resurgent 2012.

New York, meanwhile, had a massive roster and front-office overhaul in the offseason, so an adjustment period was to be expected. More than a month in, the club's performance is not nearly justifying its payroll. Sure, New York had never won at Toyota Park (0-7-3 all-time now), so Sunday's loss was just another addition to the voodoo the Chicago Fire have held over the Red Bulls, but considering the circumstances -- New York coming off its first win, Chicago being horrendous to start the season -- it figured to be a time when a good, experienced team would find a way to get a result, only for a giant step backward to be taken.

The Red Bulls have been dealing with an injury to Thierry Henry, but they have also had underwhelming performances across the board -- Juninho, Tim Cahill, Luis Robles and Peguy Luyindula. Like the Galaxy showed last season, and like so many others have shown in past seasons, success is determined way more by how a team plays in the summer and fall than March and April, but these two supposed powers are setting poor trends and have created a sense of early urgency heading into their second meeting.

DART: Porter's first win, Irwin's surge highlight Saturday slate

2. CCL glory unlikely for MLS. Another year, another CONCACAF Champions League final that looks destined to be won by a Mexican team.

Both the Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders came up short in the home legs of their respective semifinal ties, a recipe for disaster against Mexican clubs the stature of Monterrey and Santos Laguna. MLS shuffled the schedule for Seattle and Los Angeles, provididing bye weeks leading into both legs of the CCL semifinals, but that advantage has meant little on the scoreboard.

LA succumbed to a second-half collapse to two-time defending competition champion Monterrey after looking likely to take a 1-0 edge into the away leg. Seattle, meanwhile, could not prevent Sounders killer Herculez Gomez from scoring an away goal and giving the Mexican side the decisive advantage into the repeat fixture from last year's quarterfinals that saw Santos Laguna paste the Sounders 6-1 at Estadio Corona.

Plenty of the Mexican clubs' dominance in the competition has to deal with the fact that they are not restricted by the same salary cap as MLS teams, which leads to deeper squads and an ability to overcome playing CCL games on short rest from domestic play. Even though the perceived gap between Liga MX and MLS is closing, the balance is still tilted heavily toward the former. Getting a result on Mexican soil isn't completely unfounded anymore considering the progress MLS has made in that area in the past three seasons, but it will be considered a huge surprise if either the Galaxy or Sounders make the final and keep the dream of becoming the first MLS team to appear at the FIFA Club World Cup alive.

3. Know the Laws. The San Jose Earthquakes have a number of reasons for not playing up to the same Supporters' Shield level as they did a season ago. The club faced a pretty rabid injury crisis entering the season, and it can often be difficult to replicate success in a balanced league like MLS. The fact that the Earthquakes did not walk out of their home game against the Vancouver Whitecaps with three points, though, is completely on them.

In one of the more bizarre sequences of the season, the Quakes gifted the Whitecaps an 11-on-9 advantage when Alan Gordon and Victor Bernardez thought they had time to change their cleats when teammate Sam Cronin went down with an apparent injury. The problem was, Cronin was never tended to by the team's medical staff, and play continued. Gordon and Bernardez, unknown to them or the Earthquakes staff, were unable to reenter the field until a stoppage, which only came after Corey Hertzog made good on the impromptu power play and scored the equalizer that held up in the 1-1 draw.

No matter how unusual the scenario -- in comments made to MLSSoccer.com, Gordon and veteran coach Frank Yallop said they were unaware of the now-unobscured Law of the Game that the players could not return until a stoppage in play -- the use of better judgment had to be expected from an experienced and savvy team like San Jose. Don't expect to see another wardrobe malfunction alter a game in such drastic fashion again soon.

4. Get well soon, Kevin Alston.Off-field matters sometimes trump on-field happenings, and that is the case with New England Revolution defender Kevin Alston. The Revs announced Monday that Alston will take a leave of absence for the team after being diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, a rare, but treatable, form of cancer. In a team statement, the Revs said that Alston is not expected to require hospitalization and that he plans on returning to the team in the future after undergoing treatment.

The 24-year-old outside back has started all of the 116 games in which he has played in the last four-plus seasons (including all four of the Revs' games this season) and was a 2010 MLS All-Star.

5. Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Clint Irwin (Colorado Rapids)

Defenders: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Amobi Okugo (Philadelphia Union), Josh Williams (Columbus Crew)

Midfielders: Diego Chara (Portland Timbers), Hendry Thomas (Colorado Rapids), Daniel Paladini (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers)

Forwards: Ryan Johnson (Portland Timbers), Maicon Santos (Chicago Fire), Dominic Oduro (Columbus Crew)

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